La Liga 2012, Week 24 Preview And Fixtures: Barcelona Faces Stern Test At Surging Atlético

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 16: Falcao (R) with his teammates Koke (L) and Lopez Adrian of Club Atletico de Madrid celebrates after scoring the third goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 match between S.S. Lazio and Club Atletico de Madrid at Olimpico Stadium on February 16, 2012 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

It's a weekend of fantastic games here in Spain, with Sevilla travelling to Valencia, Athletic Bilbao taking on Villarreal, and Barcelona making the long trek back to Madrid for a duel with Atleti. Could be very revealing about the state of the Liga today; and it could also not tell us anything useful at all.

Last week, Lionel Messi scored four goals in Barcelona's brutal 5-1 decimation of Valencia. But that was at the Camp Nou, where Barcelona, and Messi in particular, have been nearly flawless; this week, they face a determined, and reinvigorated Atlético Madrid (yes, you read me right) side at the Estadio Vicente Calderón in Madrid. No, that's not a joke: since Diego "El Cholo" Simeone took the reigns at Madrid's second club, Atleti have been nearly flawless in Europe, though they've looked relatively pedestrian in la Liga (two draws against mediocre sides in their last two matches). They're making a very real push in the Europa League, with Radamel Falcao supplying the scoring; now, they have to match their new-found hope against Barcelona's intimidating passing attack.

This is must-watch TV, especially when we consider Barcelona's away form: while Messi has managed 23 goals and six assists in twelve home matches (those are alien numbers, out of this world stats) at home, he has only scored four goals with three assists in ten away games. If Messi scores at the Calderón, expect a blowout of epic proportions; if not, well, there's always the sequel to Madrid-based daily AS's critically acclaimed story "10 POINTS!!!," "13 POINTS!!!" hovering around the bend.

Saturday, February 25

Racing Santander vs. Sporting Gijón

18:00 CET (12:00 PM EST)

Racing has been absolutely brutal on offense recently (well, all season), and there's little hope of a let-up in defensive Sporting. Both sides will try to pick their spots; but with offenses this bad, it's very possible that they won't have any spots to pick.

Pick: 0-0.

Real Betis vs. Getafe

18:00 CET (12:00 PM EST)

Betis is coming off their best run of form since the first two weeks of la Liga (remember that?), and it's already being reflected in their position on the table. Their 2-1 victory over Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic was no fluke, as this side has really turned it on in their quest to avoid relegation.

Pick: 1-0 to Betis.

Málaga vs. Real Zaragoza

20:00 CET (2:00 PM EST)

I think it's time for me to come clean: I admit that Málaga just isn't that good. And who could have expected it? I mean, their defense has more holes than, well, what has tons of holes? That book, Holes? Or the movie starring Shia Lebeouf, Holes (Starring that kid from Even Stevens)? Well, that. They suck. But they're not as bad as Zaragoza.

Pick: 3-1 to Málaga.

Espanyol vs. Levante

22:00 CET (4:00 PM EST)

Is Rayo the new Levante? Yes! Does that mean no one cares about Levante anymore? Yes! Does that mean that Levante will finally start to really suck like everyone thought they would all season? Probably!

Pick: 1-0 to Espanyol.

Sunday, February 26

Villarreal vs. Athletic

12:00 CET (6:00 AM EST)

Wow, this is actually a really good game. And it's on in the early morning, so if you're reading this in the USA, well, you'll probably only watch it if you're a soccer nutjob. But that's the price we pay.

Pick: 2-2 to us! Lots of goals!

Rayo Vallecano vs. Real Madrid

16:00 CET (10:00 AM EST)

Vallecas! Vallecas! Wait, what were we talking about? Oh, yeah, Real Madrid is coming. Well, its been fun, Rayo, but it's hard to beat a Mourinho side, especially in a home field where they'll be treated like heroes (half of Rayo's fans are Real Madrid fans moonlighting with a side that's less competitive...because, you know, it makes them feel alive).

Pick: 1-4 to Madrid.

Valencia vs. Sevilla

18:00 CET (12:00 PM EST)

Another fantastic game. It's a great weekend to be a Spanish soccer fan, truth be told, especially with all the combustible scenarios in the bottom of the table. Sevilla have been on a nose dive in the second half of the season, and if they don't get their house in order, they're going to risk getting dragged into the huge relegation clusterfu*k. Shockingly, at this time next season, Sevilla could be in Segunda, and Rayo Vallecano could be in Europe. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2012 la Liga.

Pick: 2-1 to Valencia.

Osasuna vs. Granada

18:00 CET (12:00 PM EST)

Osasuna's genuinely shocking defeat of Barcelona came at just the right time for them. It gives them an added lift away from the relegation pile, and should provide them with enough momentum heading forward that they might be safe for the rest of the season.

Pick: 1-0 to Osasuna.

Real Sociedad vs. Mallorca

18:00 CET (12:00 PM EST)

I really enjoy watching Real Sociedad, and want to express my incredible happiness at the fact that they're back in Primera. With that being said, I don't think it'll be very fun to play in the freezing cold Anoeta at this point in the year.

Pick: 1-0 to Sociedad.

Atlético Madrid vs. Barcelona

21:30 CET (3:30 PM EST)

While this might not end up being the game of the week in a pure excitement sense, it could be very revealing about Barcelona's admittedly slim chances of mounting any sort of comeback. Atleti are a team capable of raising their game when good sides come to visit, and if Barça find themselves pinned down in any way, it will be absolutely fascinating to see what this incarnation of the Pep Team can do about it.

Pick: 1-2 to Barcelona. I'm not ready to write them off yet. But I'm not buying stock, so to speak.

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